A chef’s chef
Sushi master and restaurateur Billy Ngo has local chefs singing his praises. Now, if he could just get Sacramentans to eat goose feet …
Billy Ngo, part-owner and head chef of both Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine and the newly opened Red Lotus Kitchen & Bar, has a go-to dumpling guy: Mr. Wong. And Mr. Wong is kind of a badass.
Wizened and compact with a towering fluff of jet black hair, Mr. Wong prepares to make the day’s dumplings in Red Lotus’ kitchen, loudly whacking a cleaver against a folded-up towel as if getting himself pumped. Chef Ngo, trim and black clad, chats with Mr. Wong in rapid-fire Cantonese while also conferring with his line cooks.
Ngo is clearly in his element and the staff hangs on his every word. The chef gracefully weaves in and out of his cramped kitchen. Untouched by the bustle, dumpling master Mr. Wong rapidly rolls a lump of pearly dough into a snake, then slices off a thin coin and uses the side of his cleaver to press it into a perfectly round, translucent wrapper.
And Mr. Wong isn’t the only artisan or expert at Red Lotus. The bearish bartender with the starfish tattooed on his elbow can easily name all five kinds of bitters stocked in the bar—and the relative merits of each. The boyish server braves the proper pronunciation of nuoc cham, or Vietnamese fish sauce, as he presents an artfully composed, clean and modern take on papaya salad. He confides that he’s a veteran of The Waterboy, OneSpeed and Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, but that he came to Red Lotus because he wanted to “learn something new.”
And then there’s Ngo, 29, who clearly demands a lot of his restaurant staff. And of himself.
Lee Dao, Ngo’s culinary-school colleague, friend and now employee at Kru, called him “precise” and “driven.” Ngo himself names supreme Iron Chef Morimoto as his chief inspiration, noting that he’s eaten in every one of his restaurants. “Except for the new one in Napa,” Ngo corrects.
Besides those pilgrimages, Ngo hasn’t traveled much, except for a trip to China with his business partner, Peter Kwong, to gear up for the opening of Red Lotus with a whirlwind culinary tour.
In China, he developed a taste for goose feet, which were all the rage; he compares them to “chicken feet on steroids.” Ngo dreams about serving them one day at Red Lotus, but because of the recalcitrant economy, he’ll have to settle for pushing the envelope with his bone-marrow dish, which is an Eastern take on, and homage to, chef Kelly McCown of Ella Dining Room and Bar’s now locally famous appetizer.
And the admiration is mutual. McCown named Ngo as a chef in Sacramento who is moving the culinary scene forward and doing “cool things”—including serving ankimo (monkfish liver), a dish that McCown ruefully conceded is not for everyone. And McCown isn’t alone in praising Ngo.
“I’ve said it before: Billy is the chef in town who I respect the most.” said Adam Pechal of Tulí Bistro.
Noah Zonca, chef de cuisine at The Kitchen, with whom Ngo externed right before opening Kru, enthused that he “probably learned as much from Billy as he learned from The Kitchen.”
Even Randall Selland himself—reached while vacationing in Paris—gladly took time to praise Ngo as well. “What I love about Billy is his passion for food,” Selland explained. “He really cares, and so few people do. It’s refreshing, and people need to support that.”
And local-chef-made-good Mike Thiemann, who currently helms Food Network personality Tyler Florence’s white-hot new restaurant Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco, said that when he and Ngo worked together at Taka’s, he always looked up to him. “I was always trying to catch up to Billy,” despite Ngo’s younger age, Thiemann said.
Despite the accolades, Ngo is humble, even slightly reluctant to talk about himself. He hurries through the story of his multiculti youth: his ethnic Chinese parents, who grew up in Vietnam; his birth in Hong Kong and subsequent move to California with his family at the age of 6 months; his childhood in south Sac, raised on a diet of both traditional Asian foods and “hamburgers and pizza”; his early stint as a sushi chef at the original Mikuni, where he watched chef Taro Arai “break all the rules” and have fun doing it, which inspired him to pursue food as a career.
His initial restaurant foray, Kru, now six years old, actually stands out in the overcrowded Sacramento sushi scene—and not by breaking the rules. The focus is on traditional nigiri prepared from impeccable ingredients, a practice Ngo learned from his time at The Kitchen, where Selland taught him that you “can’t make great food with mediocre ingredients.”
Ngo’s eyes light up when he talks about his local purveyors, such as the farm-raised sturgeon he gets from Passmore Ranch in Sloughhouse, and his preference for wild king and sockeye salmon over the pallid farmed stuff. He takes a hit financially for refusing to serve the almost-fished-to-extinction bluefin tuna, though, and wistfully voices hope that other restaurateurs will heed his example and follow suit.
In fact, like the truly passionate chef that he is, Ngo is more much more animated when talking about his fish merchants than his childhood.
And with Red Lotus, Ngo has woven all the disparate threads of that family background into a cohesive whole, which—although Ngo freely acknowledges that “fusion” is a foodie epithet—is undeniably a fusion restaurant, modeled after the acclaimed Buddakan restaurants in Philadelphia and New York. It’s still a work in progress, which he also acknowledges, but it’s an exciting one.
To bite into one of Mr. Wong’s sui mai, beautifully topped—in a sushi chef’s touch—with a cutely curled pink shrimp and a petite dollop of glistening orange roe, is to know the lofty heights that prosaic dim sum can reach. Similarly elegant is his pork-and-shrimp-stuffed soup dumpling, lolling in a velvety chicken broth. His assemble-your-own steamed buns, filled with pork belly and kim chee, are irresistibly fun.
Back in the kitchen, Mr. Wong’s dumplings begin to pile up. Then whack!—Wong hits his cleaver on the towel; turns out it’s his technique for moistening the blade. He then spoons a mixture of raw seafood into each wrapper and deftly scallops the edges so quickly that they seem to melt into place, and tucks the edges together to seal the tidy package.
It’s a virtuoso performance, one of many that, as Ngo says, aims to “elevate the cuisine of Sacramento to the next level.”